By Satoshi Matsui
Three years have passed since roughly 9,000 people died in a massive earthquake in Nepal. In the aftermath of the disaster with no way to earn money, there has been no end to cases of women and children falling victim to human trafficking across the Indian border.
"I was locked in a dark room all day, and there were days where I would be forced to service 20 people. I wasn't allowed to even see the light of the sun, and I thought about dying over and over again," a 24-year-old Nepali woman who fell victim to trafficking and was forced into prostitution for roughly nine months in New Delhi said in a quivering voice. She was rescued by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in May 2017.
The woman comes from the eastern part of Nepal. The farm where she lived and worked was destroyed by the April 2015 earthquake, and she lost her job. She worked as a cook at a hotel after that, but once rent was deducted from her monthly paycheck, she was only left with 500 Nepalese rupees (approximately 510 yen) to buy food.
With few options, a male acquaintance told her that he knew of a safe job in India where she could make money, and she crossed the border in a bus accompanied by the man. But where they eventually arrived was a brothel in New Delhi.
"They watched me carefully and I couldn't escape," she said. "There are many women who are suffering in the same conditions."
According to Indian authorities, the number of Nepali victims rescued on the border rose to 336 in 2015, the year of the quake, while there had only been 33 cases the previous year. In 2016, that number further grew to 501, and ballooned to 607 people in 2017. The majority of those who have been rescued are women aged 16 or younger, and many of them were about to be sold into prostitution.
The Nepali government is also taking countermeasures against the alarming trend, and has already saved roughly 13,600 people before they could fall victim to human trafficking during the 2016 fiscal year.
"The overall number of cases of human trafficking is growing," said Santosh Sedhai, head of investigations for NGO Rescue Foundation, which is leading efforts to save victims. "The traffickers have already thought of how to escape capture." Concerning the present conditions in Nepal three years after the deadly quake, he added, "The tourism industry has recovered, but there are many victims still struggling to make a living. Support for victims and economic growth are important issues."
Published on The Mainichi on April 29, 2018
By Sue Carpenter and Belmaya Nepali
Working on the lake gives women independence in a country where women are often destined to a life of servitude and denied the access to education, health and jobs.
Batuli Bhujel weaves deftly through the colourful wooden boats and paddles into the shore of Phewa Lake in west Nepal, stepping lightly out of her boat and steadying it as she helps her young passengers off.
For years, Bhujel has paddled tourists out at dawn to be rewarded with majestic views of the snow-capped Himalayas reflected in the glassy waters.
But the 60-year-old wonders whether she will be able to do this work much longer.
"Quite often my whole body hurts, so I just rest for a day or two. If I had other sources of income, I would not have done this job," she said, tugging the boat onto firm ground.
Bhujel is one of only about 30 women among 250 men who row boats commercially on Phewa Lake, the leading attraction in Pokhara, a resort town 150 km (90 miles) northwest of the Nepali capital Kathmandu.
Working on the lake gives women like Bhujel some independence in a country where women are often destined to a life of servitude to their in-laws as well as denied the same access as men to education, health and jobs.
Parents, particularly in rural areas, often see no benefit in educating their daughters since they leave home to live with their husbands and in-laws after marriage.
Although school attendance numbers in Nepal are improving, only 66 percent of girls attend secondary school compared with 74 percent of boys, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF says.
Like many others on the lake, Laxmi Nepali has never stepped inside a classroom.
Married at the age of 15, she is among almost 40 percent of girls in Nepal who are wed before their 18th birthday even though the legal age for marriage in the country is 20.
After giving birth to her son at the age of 18, Nepali's husband abandoned her. Shortly after, her parents took in their grandson but disowned their daughter.
"Deep inside I'm heartbroken, but I don't feel anything," said Nepali, whose second marriage also ended, leaving her to bring up a 10-year-old daughter alone.
The Phewa Boat Association, in charge of boat hire on Phewa Lake and nearby Begnas Lake, allows anyone over 16 to row their boats with no training, and offers equal pay to women and men.
Even though the association treats male and female workers as equals, women sometimes face discrimination from their colleagues and passengers.
Passengers - Nepali men, in particular - sometimes refuse to get in a woman's boat.
"The first thing they do is look at my face, and some get annoyed and go to another boat, saying they don't want to go with an old woman like me," said Bhujel. "It feels bad when people say nasty things but what can you do?"
Nepali, who said she used to be "badmouthed" and verbally abused over her job, recalled a group of boys who at first refused to allow a woman to row them across the lake.
They eventually hired her, persuaded by others who advised, "by appearance she looks like a woman, but she is like a man".
In 2015, she competed against male rowers in a boat race on Begnas Lake and came second, winning 3,000 rupees ($28) in prize money, about six times her daily earnings.
"I was given a lot of respect, even here," said Nepali, who eschews the traditional saris or tunics and trousers that other women wear for Western clothes.
Unlike the other women on Phewa Lake who only row small boats seating up to six people, Nepali operates the larger twin-hulled boats, earning fractionally more than the others.
The average fee paid by tourists for an hour on a boat is 500 rupees ($5) with the skipper getting just 100 rupees.
Boatwomen hope to earn around 500 rupees a day, plus tips, but sometimes they leave empty-handed.
When business is quiet, Bhujel, Nepali and the others may only get a turn every two or three days.
Foreign tourists tend to be the meanest tippers, Bhujel said.
"If they speak Nepali, we tell them we can't even get a cup of tea with 10 or 20 rupees but foreigners don't understand us. We don't understand them, so whatever little they give, we just accept it," she said.
To boost their earnings, especially after the devastating earthquake in 2015 led to a drop in tourist numbers, many of the boatwomen seek casual work elsewhere including on construction sites, breaking and carrying stones.
"I feel I have become like a man and even my heart has become like that of a man," said Nepali, stabbing the lake with her oar.
She sees education as the way out of poverty for her daughter, but it is a constant battle to make ends meet.
State schools are free for all children but parents still need to find money for uniforms and stationery. Sometimes they are forced to pay annual admission and exam fees.
"I don't have any dreams for myself but I have dreams for my daughter, to provide her with an education so that she does well," Nepali said.
"My wish is that people look at her and say, no matter how I am, I have raised my daughter well."
($1 = 107.8300 Nepalese rupees)
This article was published on Thomson Reuters Foundations News' website on February 15, 2017.